Could latest Beijing-Rome sparring be sign of better relations?

The latest verbal sparring between Rome and Beijing could be preliminary moves in which both sides establish the ground rules for future relations.

Last week, Pope Francis called on Chinese Catholics to attach themselves to “the rock of Peter on which the Church was built”.

This means giving allegiance to Rome, rather than the government-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, but the state officially tolerates only government-appointed bishops and churches.

The Pope’s call came after President Xi Jinping said in a speech that religion in China must be “Chinese” and free from any “foreign influence”.

But Notre Dame East Asian language and culture academic Lionel Jensen didn’t the latest tit-for-tat as a setback to improved relations between the Holy See and Beijing.

Such remarks by the Pope are just the latest in a verbal sparring match that may sound inflammatory, but still ultimately aims to work out some type of relationship, Dr Jensen said.

“This is some of the tit-for-tat we see with both sides trying to establish what their ground rules are going to be.”

“The movement toward a rapprochement began in earnest last August when Pope Francis urged Asian area bishops, who met with him before his departure from Korea, to assist in facilitating a warmer relationship with China,” Dr Jensen said.

He said Francis showed an inclination to further engage with China when he opted not to meet the Dalai Lama when he was in Rome.

“This was really quite strange. But it makes sense to me because this is the kind of behaviour that China expects out of high-level people when they are in some kind of negotiations with China.”

But Dr Jensen acknowledged that the path ahead would not be easy.

There have been no formal diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See since 1951, when China cut off ties with the Vatican.

The Holy See’s ongoing diplomatic relations with Taiwan are problematic for Beijing.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has started a “subdued” visit to China amid the worst persecution against Christians there in a generation.


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